Am I Allowed to Jam to ‘Formation’?
The dust from the inevitable burst of immediate reactions to and opinions about reactions to Beyoncé’s politically charged “Formation” has settled. Two months have passed since the single and its video dropped; headlines have changed to reflect Hillary Clinton’s bag, not what’s in Beyoncé’s.
The actual song hasn’t stopped playing on the radio, of course, nor has our enjoyment of its danceable rhythm — my enjoyment of its danceable rhythm.
Is that okay?
Purchasing and listening to “Formation” (thus adding more “paper” to Beyoncé’s pocket of revenge) is okay. Appreciating and even helping to underscore the Black Lives Matter statement it makes is okay. But is it okay for me, a white woman, to enjoy this song the way I enjoy a lot of pop music: by singing it? When Beyoncé gets to “I like my baby heir with baby hair and Afro/I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” at her June concert, will I be allowed to mouth the words in unison from row 14 of Citi Field’s promenade section? Though I do not possess them, do I “get to” celebrate textured hair and wide noses, features that have historically (and even recently) been subject to ridicule because of the racism coloring our beauty standards, in a pop song? Wouldn’t I be embezzling black pride?
In a New York Times piece on “Formation,” writer Jenna Wortham said that we could read the video “as an existential call to action to [Beyoncé’s] listeners and viewers: ‘Black women, join me and make your own formation, a power structure that doesn’t rely on traditional institutions.’” I am not a black woman.
Beyoncé’s website sells merchandise decorated with some of the song’s catchphrases, such as “You that bitch when you cause all this conversation” and “I twirl on them haters.” “[W]e can all wear HOT SAUCE caps when we meet up for dinner at Red Lobster next week,” said Jon Caramanica, also not black, for what it’s worth, in the same New York Times piece. Can we? Beyoncé is a mega-star who makes her music for a massive public’s consumption, yes, but that doesn’t mean we can identify with it, putting it on our bodies. (It should be noted that the merchandise is modeled exclusively by minority women, so perhaps Beyoncé is telling whites not to wear it?) I’ll refrain from purchasing those items. Less clear to me is what I should do at the concert — and, really, any time the song comes on in public and I want to join in on the communal jam session.
In short: Can I sing the same lyrics as a black woman parading her blackness in front of a country still smarting with racism?